Significant changes to smoke detector standards: Learn what it means for you

 In Be Ready, Industry

This article has been updated in response to UL extending the deadline for UL 217 & 268 compliance by a year. Click HERE to read an updated version of this article. Also, Click HERE to read the latest on which products have been discontinued in response to this significant UL code change and if this 1 year extension will really matter.

Smoke detectors have two critical functions, to warn people of a potential fire hazard and to save lives. To be effective, smoke detectors need to be installed correctly and detect smoke from common home and business products.

Smoke detectors have two critical functions, to warn people of a potential fire hazard and to save lives. To be effective, smoke detectors need to be installed correctly and detect smoke from common home and business products. To promote these two functions and save lives, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the world’s largest developers of safety standards for consumer products, develop new smoke detector standards and testing requirements. In the fire safety space, UL smoke detector standards drive new products and are critical to determining the cost and strategy for how facility managers maintain and update their fire safety systems – and in 2020, these standards are significantly changing!

First announced in February of 2018, UL released two new smoke alarm and detector standards (UL 217 & UL 268) aimed at reducing false alarms, also known as nuisance alarms, and at detecting different smoke characteristics. This means, that the new smoke detectors in 2020 will now be able to tell the difference between smoke from cooking or burning your food and other non-lethal sources from actual life-threatening smoke. These new UL standards and the resulting new much smarter smoke detectors are perhaps the most significant technological change suppliers and facility managers have seen in recent times. So how did this industry changing standard come about and what does it mean for you?

First, back in 2007, through a series of tests, UL determined that smoke detectors no longer worked like they were intended too. When first developed in the 1960s, smoke detectors were designed to detect smoke from combustibles such as wood, paper, and cloth. However, by the turn of the century the most common combustible products in a home and business became plastics, foams, and a range of artificial products. Wood has been replaced by glue and laminated wood products and paper and cloth replaced by rayon, nylon, and oil and plastic based products. Memory foam has also replaced dense cottons for stuffing in seating, pillows, and beds. All these new products burn quicker, hotter, and with a greater intensity reducing the time people have to evacuate a home or building from 10-15 minutes, to possibly just a few. Additionally, these new more synthetic products create toxic fumes that can overcome occupants before they have enough time to escape.

At the same time, data shows that most fire related deaths are caused by smoke detectors not working properly, typically from the removal of the battery. Occupants get tired of false alarms from cooking and take out the battery, making the detector useless when really needed. These false alarms are also costly to building owners and have taken their toll on fire departments that responded to nearly 2.5 million false alarms in 2014, according to NFPA analysis. This is almost twice the total number of reported fires.

The updated UL standards and new smart smoke detectors take aim at all these issues. These are a new line of smoke alarms that can determine what type of smoke it’s sensing and then make a judgment call on if that thing is a threat or not. The speed and accuracy of these new smart smoke detectors is unlike anything the industry has seen before and will significantly increase public safety and save lives.

So what are these new detectors and what are their costs? In short, we don’t know yet. As of today, most manufactures have their new UL 217 and UL 268 7th Edition compliant products submitted to UL for testing. Over the next 18 months, as we get closer to that 2020 deadline, we can expect to see more communication from manufacturers about these new products. Manufacturer’s are just starting to communicate with distributors about the end of life production plan for legacy fire system products that will no longer be UL compliant after 2020.

One thing we know for certain though is that by May 2020 UL will no longer issue a UL listing for current smoke detectors which do not meet the new UL 217/UL 268 standards. While this doesn’t mean your current installed system is not valid, it does mean that products you utilize today to support such system will no longer be produced or available from the manufacturer. To support the end user of pre 2020 fire safety systems, here is a list of options on how to prepare for this important and drastic industry change:

  1. Design and budget for a complete retrofit of your fire alarm system to be compatible with UL compliant new smart smoke detectors – while this may solve the compatibility issues for years to come, this is also the most costly option.
  2. Start now to stock up on spare smoke detectors that work with your system before they are discontinued. From now till 2020 you can find these products both direct from dealers and from the secondary market. Save More on Fire Alarm Parts stocks over 40,000 new and refurbished products, many of which will be discontinued by manufacturer’s by 2020.
  3. Wait until after 2020 – which is likely what most facility managers will do – to react to the new standards and product limitations. Since manufactures won’t be producing these products after the 2020 deadline, these pre 2020 products will then only be available through secondary sellers who will have fixed and diminishing quantities. After 2020 we expect the cost of these products to significantly raise as supply and demand fundamentals take place. Buying products at this higher price will still be a less costly option compared to retrofitting for sometime. Also remember if you chose to retrofit after 2020 expect a backlog on fire alarm contractors since they can at best retrofit 3-5% of their customers a year. With a potentially high retrofit demand you can also expect that cost to be higher than normal in the early 2020s.

This change in the UL code will save lives and is a significant change for manufactures and fire system managers. Over the coming months, we expect a lot of manufacture announcements so follow us on FaceBook to get the latest updates and what it can be mean for you, your business, and your bottom line.

Save More on Fire Alarm Parts, October 2018

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